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How to Transition Better Into Consulting: Three Problems to Avoid

This post has been sitting as a draft for about four weeks now. I have been meaning to sit down and review and finalize it. But every chance I get lately, I find myself reviewing my MBA essays and applications. Good news is: two applications have been submitted! As a result, I now have some time to finally post this.

Moving into consulting can be challenging for many different reasons. I personally have seen people join consulting after working “in the industry” for a few years and struggle to make a good transition. The long hours and the travelling can indeed take a toll on personal life. However, cultural integration and change in work style can be the more difficult transition. In fact, often the long hours are a result of this lack of cultural integration as people try to catch up to those who have found their fit.

I know many of my blogosphere community members are looking to join consulting after MBA. So I wanted to share the stories of two people, Bob and Anne and their journey into a consulting role.

Note: Bob and Anne are not actual people or representative of anyone I know. Their actions and personalities are compilation of all good/bad qualities I have seen across a number of people. 

Background

Bob was a mid-level manager at a large operations team at a global bank. He was an established expert at his bank and indeed his institutional knowledge base (i.e. bank operations and industry specific skills) is very deep. Bob was managing team of forty people at the bank and his department was known for efficiency and excellence. Bob recently decided to pursue an MBA and after graduation he joined a consulting firm as a Manager.

Anne also worked in the industry as part of a rotation program at a bank. In three years she rotated through various departments within the bank and built basic skills in various areas. She then decided to pursue an MBA. Upon graduation she was hired as a Consultant/Associate in the same consulting firm as Bob.

Coincidentally (shocker!) they both joined the same project, although they are working on different work streams.

Problem 1: Not enough research

From the day she joined, Anne has been reading every thought leadership article on consulting, her client, and financial services she can get her hands on. She sits in meetings where she hears acronyms and terms she doesn’t understand. She takes notes of these terms and in her free time researches them. She started maintaining glossary of terms which she reviews before important meetings and discussions. Soon, she is making connections and putting together pieces of the puzzle into a picture that she understands.

Bob however feels he can leverage his years of experience and does not see the value in spending hours reading and researching. He takes a glance at the documentation provided and stores it for reference later. However, his institutional knowledge is outdated because he has been removed from the industry for two years. Like Anne, he does not understand many of the terms and acronyms, especially client-specific terms. Bob asks his colleagues and clients to explain terms, sometimes during meetings and sometimes after the fact.

So why is Bob’s approach bad? Firstly, team as a whole must dedicate resources (time spent explaining) to bring Bob up to speed. Don’t misunderstand me, communication and on-boarding is key to successful projects. But, Bob must take initiative to on-board himself. Taking initiatives allow Bob to avoid asking piecemeal questions like:

  • What is EEPE?
  • What is RWA?
  • And how are they related?

Because Anne has been doing her research, she will likely know what EEPE and RWA are, and will be able to jump straight to, “What impact does EEPE have on RWA, and what is the measure of that impact?” This way she needs only one meeting or email response rather than three.

Secondly, Bob will struggle to gain a holistic understanding of his environment through this piecemeal questioning. He might ask “What is EEPE?” on Monday, inquire about RWA on Thursday, forget about the two over the weekend and never reach the third question, which is the most important.

Lesson: Assume you know nothing and read everything given to you. Far too many new hires ignore, or are intimidated, by mountains of documentation they are provided in the first few days on a new project. The documentation was created and is provided for a purpose.
PS: I threw in some industry acronyms. If counterparty credit risk consulting is of interest to you, you best know those terms.

Problem 2: Hesitation and Risk Aversion

At Bob’s old job, each new project and initiative went through approval from management, procurement, governance committees, etc. etc. So he is used to managing projects that have had a lot of due diligence and oversight, affording Bob comfort in the form of repeated validation of his work. Bob attempts to acquire the same level of buy-in for his new project. He seek approval from his Senior Manager and the clients and asks what direction to take the project in. The Senior Manager is busy pitching additional work and just wants to hear that things are going well. Similarly, the client hired the consultants to make a problem go away, not to add validation headaches to his list of responsibilities.

So Bob soon finds that he has to decide what to do and move ahead, sometimes without approval or validation. Unfortunately, Bob lacks the confidence to pull the trigger himself because he didn’t do his research. So he starts stalling till the last minute. He tries to ensure that every thing is perfect before presenting anything at all. When he finally does present his ideas, he finds out there is no such thing as a perfect idea and he has a mountain of feedback to incorporate, putting the project at risk.

Meanwhile Anne, having built a good foundation through research, starts focusing on developing ideas early. She presents initial drafts of her ideas to her direct manager and is able to incorporate his feedback earlier in the development process. Not only that, she is able to develop multiple approaches simultaneously, giving the client options to pick from.

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but make them early. Hesitation can jeopardize a project and hurt your credibility. If you are truly stuck, ask for help – as long as you have done the legwork (see Problem 1).

Problem 3: Hierarchies

After working on the project for a few weeks, our protagonists cross paths as Bob’s and Anne’s projects require coordination. Anne is asked to lead this coordination from her end, effectively making Bob and Anne peers. But officially, Bob is a Manager and Anne a consultant. Therefore, Bob feels he has just added another member to his team. He starts assigning tasks to Anne unrelated to her project. Furthermore, he insists that he handle all client interactions as the manager.

Anne, frustrated with this conflict, escalates the issue to her manager, who brings it up with the Senior Manager (Side note: this is probably not the best course of action either, but for simplicity I will leave this as is). Anne has been very successful on the project thus far, but Bob has been struggling. So Senior Manager listens to both sides of the story, but is biased towards Anne. Bob is reprimanded for being a problem, which further deteriorates Anne’s and Bob’s relationship. Ultimately, the project suffers as both parties are unable to work to full potential without coordination.

Lesson: Forget about titles – what matters most is who has information, credibility, and solutions. You may often find yourself working next to people who are a level or two below you. The reality is that titles may not often reflect who is really in charge (hint: it is whoever gets job done). The only caveat is if you directly report to someone (e.g. the Senior Manager from above). In this case you best not step on their toes.

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